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Susan Wise Bauer


Whiteness

Special Section: White/Other

Two years ago, we buried my grandmother in the family graveyard, in the middle of a cornfield. Overtop of the old Confederate soldier graves, the funeral home director set out rows of folding metal chairs for the relatives, and my cousin mowed down the corn around the graveyard's edge so that friends could stand and listen. Just before the minister began the service, a statuesque black woman with a close cap of hair and platform shoes came through the field and sat down at the end of the relatives' row: the only black woman in a cluster of white faces. I didn't recognize her, until my mother leaned forward and whispered, "There's your sister."

My grandmother always gave special presents to my sister, the odd one out, the child who didn't fit. My white parents adopted my sister when she was three days old and I was almost one. She grew up with European features and dark skin, the heritage of her unknown African American father and her teenaged white mother. We fought all our lives; I was the good girl, while my sister smoked cigarettes, carried on long secretive phone conversations with boys after she was supposed to be in bed, and ignored all the limits my parents set. But I didn't think of our constant bickering as a manifestation of racial tension. She was my sister.

She stopped being my sister sometime in the middle of our college education. At a small Baptist college, she found herself in a militant group of black students who told her that she needed to break the bonds with her white family in order to realize her own black identity. She broke with us: with relief, with joy.

After that I never again had a conversation with her that did not end in race. All of our disagreements became crystallized into this single point: You were happy and I wasn't, because you are white and I am black. You're white, and you will never understand. After one particularly spectacular fight, not long after I got married, I stopped calling, stopped writing, stopped trying. We didn't see ...

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